The Politics of Reading

February 25, 2015 § Leave a comment

Sometimes Twitter seems designed to irritate. Courtesy of social media I find myself clicking on links to articles I’d never see, on sites I’d rarely visit, in the normal course of events. It seldom ends well. Usually I keep my opinions to myself but I found this one post particularly frustrating. Because reading a book is not a political act.  At its best it can be an act of political engagement that leads to political action.  The distinction may seem to be an argument in semantics, but is not.

Just to demonstrate how flawed the logic behind this post actually is, here’s a quick example:  Just because The Hunger Games trilogy deals with the concepts of war reparations,  income inequality, propaganda, spectacle used to control the masses and social revolution doesn’t make you a political activist just because you read the books. If you were to write a paper or an article, link the film to a cause and use it as a bridge to inspire & inform – then maybe.  But for any of those things to happen you must read with an intent other than pleasure & escapism. You must make a decision to take action.

And not all books are political. Historical romance novels make great escapist reading but the vast majority have no viable or actionable political content whatsoever. Authors like Neil Gaiman, Stephen King & Arthur Conan Doyle are great writers, every one.  Finding a political message in their books and short stories is going to be a stretch.

Please don’t misunderstand – pleasure & escapism are as valid reasons as any to read a book. But the belief that you can passively engage in politics is, in my opinion, a dangerous one. It fosters complacency.  At worst it encourages it.

As in everything else in life a choice exists. A certain amount of active engagement is necessary. Do you as a reader seek out books with a political message – whether subtle or overt? Do the books you read lead you to further explore an idea, a piece of history or a culture? Do you seek out diversity – books written by women, people of color, small presses, self-published, translations? Do the books you read spark discussions on different issues and ideas? Have they led you to support a cause? Or to question your lifestyle? Do they sometimes challenge your beliefs?

I find this post frustrating partly because I don’t believe the idea it professes to support – that reading is political – is actually the argument the author of the post wanted to make.  What I believe she is arguing against is the idea that politics somehow taints the experience of reading. That a reader who chooses to avoid a book because they believe it is political – or refuse to engage in the political component of a book because they dislike the idea of politics – is making a mistake. Politics plays a part in the plots of many of the books we read (though not all) and these books, inevitably, influence our decisions. They shape our opinions.  Readers should embrace rather than avoid this reality.

Because “politics” in and of itself is not a dirty word.

n. 1520s, “science of government,” from politic (adj.), modeled on Aristotle’sta politika “affairs of state,” the name of his book on governing and governments, which was in English mid-15c. as “Polettiques.” Also see -ics.

Reading with political action in mind (or at the very least being open to political theory in what we read) sounds boring – even to me. Or, as is too often the case, divisive. Particularly if you equate politics to Republicans & Democrats, the Right & the Left, Conservative & Liberals, and all those labels that start those god-awful arguments with Uncle Bill during the holidays.  But political parties  – “political allegiances or opinions” as the quote above says –  and politics were not always synonymous. Politics was originally meant to help us navigate our relationships with one another on a macro scale.  To help us find the best way to function as a society. To help us decide whether it is better to help each other or just ourselves.

And even overtly political books don’t always have to be depressing. Or divisive.  Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof & Sheryl WuDunn is full of hope.  It is inspirational. The authors work to empower women  and believe that the act of empowering women will make the world a better place.  Best-sellers like Reading Lolita In Tehran and Nine Parts of Desire look at the role of women in society – Muslim society in these instances – with the goal of understanding rather than condemning.  Is it so inconceivable to see yourself doing something as small as googling “microloans” or even buying a scarf from a program like Global Goods Partners, inspired by one of these books? A small step, true, but a step nonetheless.

What about novels?  Can fiction inspire political action? Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Grapes of Wrath are two historical examples of books that impacted society.  Need more contemporary examples?  His Own Man by Edgard Telles Ribeiro might have you re-thinking the U.S.’s policy in Central & South America.  The Man With the Compound Eye (about a boy from a mysterious island who lives for a time on a floating island of trash) and The Healer (set in a apocalyptic future) both deal with environmental issues and still remain entertaining/enjoyable reads. Honor by Elif Shafak deals sensitively with the often difficult and complicated subject of the familial relationships of Muslim immigrants. And anything at all by Margaret Atwood falls withing the category of “stories-with-a-message” that I’ve been describing.

Reading is about entertainment, yes, but it is also about empathy; about exploring experiences & perspectives that are different from our own. To me the one (politics) seems entirely congruous with the other (reading). But whether they influence and effect each other – in turn influencing and effecting our lives as readers and citizens – is a separate matter entirely.  It is a conscious decision we need to make as individuals. Perhaps, even, a call to action.

Blood Brothers by Ernst Haffner (translated from the original German by Michael Hofmann)

February 22, 2015 § Leave a comment

Title:  Blood Brothers (original German title Youth on the Road to Berlin)
Author:  Ernst Haffner
Translator:  Michael Hofmann
Publisher:  Other Press, New York (2015)
ISBN: 978 15905 1704 8
Haffner_BloodBrothersFinalA galley shows in my mailbox proclaiming itself “BANNED BY THE NAZI PARTY” in bold letters across the cover – as if the Nazi Party were still in the business of banning anything or anyone. The announcement doesn’t appear on the cover of the finished book, which is unfortunate as it provides a historical context for Ernst Haffner’s only known novel* – a book that seems to have come out of a 19th century “muck-raking” literary tradition rather than the years between the two World Wars.

Set during the waning days of the Weimar Republic, Blood Brothers was first published in 1932.  Adolf Hitler is appointed German Chancellor a year later.  The economy, already being crushed under the weight of WWI reparation payments, is devastated by the U.S. stock market crash of 1929.  (The Weimar government had received huge loans from the United States and, when faced with their own financial crisis, the U.S. called those loans in).  By 1932, between five & six million Germans were unemployed.

All over Germany, but particularly in the cities, boys & young men ranging from age 14-18 formed gangs in order to survive. In Berlin these gangs were surprisingly well organized – each holding a specific territory (divided into “Rings”)  and conforming to a rigidly structured hierarchy led by a “Ring Bull”.   This organization is only loosely hinted at by Haffner – he prefers to focus on the correlation between the youths and vagabonds. We are introduced to the Blood Brothers of the title as they stand in line at the welfare office. They’re not there for aid. They have no papers and if they’re caught by the authorities they’ll be sent to youth detention facilities until they come of age.

The eight boys were able to capture a whole bench and serenely oblivious to the numbers, they drop off to sleep. They’ve spent the whole endless winter’s night on the street. As so many times before: homeless. Always trudging on, always on the go. No chance of any shut-eye in this weather. Day-old remnants of snow, the occasional thin shower of sleet, everything nicely shaken up by a wind that makes the boys’ teeth chatter with cold. Eight boys, aged sixteen to nineteen. A few are veterans of borstals (detention centers). Two have parents somewhere in Germany. The odd one perhaps still has a father or mother someplace. Their birth and early infancy coincided with the war and the years after. From the moment they undertook their first uncertain steps, they were on their own. Father was at the Front or already listed missing. Mother was turning grenades, or coughing her lungs out a few grams at a time in explosives factories. The kids with their turnip bellies – not even potato bellies – were always out for something to eat in courtyards and streets. As they grew older, gangs of them went out stealing. Stealing to fill their bellies. Malignant little beasts.

The Blood Brothers are led by Jonny.  A sympathetic and likeable character, in the early chapters he is shown taking care of his crew – spending what little money the gang has on food and a place where they can sleep unmolested. He organizes the boys – making sure they move around the city in pairs so as not to attract attention. At this point in the story their focus is on the basic necessities of survival and Jonny is more a protective big brother figure and less a criminal Fagin.

This will change as Jonny and the Blood Brothers, under the guidance of Jonny’s lieutenant Fred, discover the benefits of a criminal lifestyle.  Only two members, Willi & Ludwig (who are, notably, sepearted from the gang when it begins organized pick-pocketing), remain unconvinced and determine to leave the gang. These two pairs boys serve as moral contrasts – demonstrating the two paths available. The tone of the book, though, is not moralistic.  Haffner doesn’t judge, instead he laments the society that allows these boys to slip though the cracks.  Though “lament” may be too strong of a word.  Blood Brothers is written in the odd, yet incredibly effective, style of a newsreel voice over.  Or a YA novel.  The gangs’ crimes range from prostitution & petty theft, to pick-pocketing and eventually breaking & entering – all described in a hearty narrative voice. I couldn’t get the word “sanitized” out of my mind.  For example: Willi & Ludwig, out of desperation, sell themselves to two rich men.  Men who, “Along with their silk-lined tuxes…stripped off their manners. What was left were two scrawny little men whose wallets allowed them to buy young healthy, if half-starved, boys”.  The next morning when the boys wake the men are gone.  ‘Details of the night just past swim into the boys’ consciousness. “Yuck!” says Ludwig. “Yes, it makes me feel sick. Never again…”‘ They then proceed to go out for breakfast and plan their future – the episode entirely forgotten.

There’s a lot to recommend Blood Brothers.  It reads like a first hand account of the economic conditions in Germany that allowed the Nazi Party to come to power. For anyone interested in the Hitlerjugand and their counterparts, the Edelweiss Pirates (an underground youth movement that fought for the Allies) it has that added layer.  In addition, Blood Brothers is extremely entertaining and easy to read.  Haffner shows real empathy for these boys’ situation.  There are elements of adventure, suspense and – perhaps most important – a sense of hope.  Hope that these boys are victims of a broken system and not inherently bad. Despite the events that we know loom over Germany’s, and the boys’, future – events that Haffner had no knowledge of when writing the book – we are left incongruously hoping that everything will still work out.

*Very little is known about Ernst Haffner – some believe he was a social worker.  A critic reviewing Blood Brothers at the time of its original publication refers to him as a journalist.  We know that the book was critically and popularly successful when first published.  That it was burned by the Nazis a year later and that Haffner & his publisher were called before the Cultural Ministry.  That is where the trail ends. No picture exists.  No record of whether he survived the war.  The only reference I found of him was a chapter in a 1980 book (written in German) on the youth gangs: Wilde Cliquen : Szenen e. anderen Arbeiterjugendbewegung by Hellmut Lessing & Manfred Liebel  and I’m not sure if it’s a excerpt from the novel or a separate article entirely.

What Do Margaret Wise Brown & Georges Perec Have In Common?

February 10, 2015 § 2 Comments

Title:  An Attempt At Exhausting A Place In Paris

Author:  Georges Perec

Translator:  Marc Lowenthal

Publisher:  Wakefield Press, Cambridge (2010)

ISBN:  978 0 9841155 2 5

 

WakefieldExhausting4At what age do we as readers start requiring linear narratives? And demand that all books tell us stories?

Margaret Wise Brown’s iconic Goodnight Moon has been a bedtime staple for decades.  If you didn’t have it read to you as a child then you have almost certainly read it as an adult to a child in your life.  I’ve yet to attend a baby shower where there wasn’t at least one copy – if not multiples – unwrapped.  Adults discovering or rediscovering Goodnight Moon often express surprise at the sophistication of this little book.  The rhythm of the prose, the way the room in the illustrations grows darker as the pages are turned, and the insertion of “Goodnight nobody, goodnight mush” (a surrealist moment if there ever was one) – these things speak to an author who was interested in non-linear narrative and experimental literature.

For this all to make sense it’s important to understand that there’s more to Margaret Wise Brown and her books than meets the eye.  She was a product of the modernist period in literature.*  In the early 1930’s she worked as a teacher at the Bank Street Experimental School in New York City.  At that time this cutting edge school’s focus was on early childhood education & development. She studied how children used rhymes to develop language. Sometimes, as in the case of her “Noisy Book” series, she would use the children as a kind of “focus group” and adjust some of the words based on their reactions & suggestions.  Toddlers would be shown picture book illustrations and teachers would time how long the pictures held their attention.  The Bank Street School was the epicenter of what became known as the golden age of children’s literature. And most of the ideas in Margaret Wise Brown’s books can be traced back to what she learned there.

 Goodnight Moon tells no story, per se.  There are no character arcs.  No morals explained. No dialogue. At the most basic level Goodnight Moon is a catalog of the items in a single room. And, yet, lovers of the book are as  familiar with the contents of that room as they are of any room in their own home.

What no one ever really discusses (and why should they? This is a children’s book we’re talking about) is the quiet, haunting quality of Brown’s writing.  There is none of the joyful silliness or made up rhymes you find in Dr. Seuss.  Or the reassuring sentimentalism found in many stories written for the very young. Goodnight Moon is poetry – childish, simplistic, naive – but poetry nonetheless.

…goodnight to the old lady

whispering “hush”

Goodnight stars

Goodnight air

Goodnight noises everywhere

 

In words a small child can understand Brown describes the line between consciousness and sleep.  The gradual loss of consciousness.  Eyes open in the dark, even after the moon disappears behind the clouds, you can still see the stars. Close your eyes and listen to the sound of your breathing. Then sleep and then silence. This sixty-one page children’s book has been many a child’s first experience with the forward passage of time, even if the passage spans only 15 minutes.

The charms of Georges Perec’s An Attempt At Exhausting A Place In Paris are not so far removed from Goodnight Moon as one would think. It is a catalog of the things that the author sees and hears while sitting in place Saint-Sulpice. People passing, dogs, pigeons, church bells, streetlights and the endless waves of city buses. It should be an absolute boor. There is no story to speak of. No sense of narrative progression. No dialogue or ideas.  None of the things we are told make literature. And yet, somehow, Perec’s writing moves beyond a catalog of people, animals and things to capture the rhythms of life and time.  When he recognizes the writer Jean-Paul Aron (translated to John-Paul, which seems a bit over-zealous) walking by and then, later, walking by again, you perk up.  Because a name has been assigned to one of the many pedestrians passing by your window.  The buses begin to lose their anonymity – they become the 96, the 87 and the 63 – their appearance in the text something to look forward to.  And as the day draws to an end the sun sets and the lights in the buildings grow brighter.

The light is beginning to fade, even if this is still barely noticeable; the red of the stoplights is increasingly visible.

Lights come on in the cafe.

Two buses, Cityrama and Paris-VIsion, are unable to get by each other. The Cityrama eventually takes rue Bonaparte, the Paris-Vision would like to take rue du Vieux-Colombier. Policeman no. 5976 (“Michel Lonsdale”), at first confused, eventually grabs his whistle and intervenes – effectively, in fact.

A man walks by with his nose in the air, followed by another man who is looking at the ground.

A man with a can of Ribolin goes by.

people people cars

An old lady with a very beautiful Sherlock Holmes-style waterproof fitted coat

The crowd is dense, almost no more lulls

A woman with two baguettes under her arm

It is four thirty

 

As I said: there is no story in An Attempt At Exhausting A Place In Paris. In place of narrative Perec offers experience. Evokes a sense of place. We inhabit his senses – a brief possession. A windy, rainy day. Fading light. The world waking up on Sunday morning. As I write these things down I can’t help wondering how accurately he described what he saw. How much editing and revising happened afterwards.  Or whether accuracy even matters. Perec accomplished a far more difficult task than simply cataloging a place in Paris. On these pages he captured the relentless, forward progression of time and transformed it into poetry.

 

*In 1936 Méret Oppenheim’s Fur Covered Tea Cup was a part of the “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism” exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.  Brown’s book, Little Fur Family was published ten years later.  The first edition was covered in real rabbit fur.

The Scatter Here Is Too Great by Bilal Tanweer

February 2, 2015 § 1 Comment

Title:  The Scatter Here Is Too Great

Author:  Bilal Tanweer

Publisher: Harper Collins, New York (2014)

ISBN:  978 0062 3044 1 4

 

18781341A spider web crack is a series of hairline fractures spreading out from a central point of impact.  Bilal Tanweer makes this image the motif for his short story collection The Scatter Here Is Too Great. The central point of impact is a bomb blast at the Karachi Train Station in Pakistan.  All the stories, eight total, radiate out from and connect back to that one point in time.

Tanweer takes a “community” approach to the event.  His characters are as interconnected as his stories; appearing, re-appearing and interacting with one another throughout the book; jumping from one story to the next; telling us about their lives before and after the explosion; gradually revealing their thoughts and feelings in first person narratives (with the exception of one story which is told in the third person present tense).  All the narrators are male, predominantly young and speak in voices which veer from self-conscious vulnerability to the cocky arrogance peculiar to young men.

More succinctly:  these people, who we expect to be no more than a group of strangers whose collective bad karma has resulted in them being at the wrong place at the wrong time, know each other.  For example:  there is an elderly man, a Communist poet, who passes through several different stories.  In one he recites his poetry on the bus and is derided by other passengers.  Later we will see him again, on another bus, though the eyes of the troubled boy he sits beside and talks to.  In yet another story we recognize him as the narrator’s grandfather, and then as another narrator’s the father, and then he has a brief cameo as the friend of the main character’s father seen from a distance.  Sadeq, the boy on the bus befriended by the poet, narrates more than one chapter and over time describes to us what is a remarkably depressing life for one whose only advanced into his early 20’s. Through his story we are linked to another young man who was his childhood friend.  And in this way, one thread at a time, we learn about the victims of the bombing. So that when the time comes to tend to the survivors and collect the dead, we have an understanding exactly who each of them is and was in that moment of impact.

Unhelpfully for the purposes of this review, my favorite story is the one that takes place in the weeks after the explosion. The narrator is worried about his brother Akbar, a first responder who develops PTSD as a result of the carnage he confronts in the aftermath of the blast.  Akbar is convinced he saw Gog & Magog walking among the bodies of the dead.  “If  you don’t already know about Gog and Magog, their arrival was supposed to mark the coming of the end of the world… They will bring strife and disharmony and, ultimately the apocalypse to the world.”  Akbar’s brother eventually tracks down Gog & Magog and, while they aren’t exactly what they appeared to be, we learn that “what appears strange and complex becomes even stranger and more complicated once you begin to investigate it.  That’s the true nature of the world.”

That is Bilal Tanweer’s super power as an author.  He has a talent for creating beautiful & strange imagery out of life’s banalities. He’s willing to spend time on the insignificant things we all notice and just as quickly forget. Like a plastic bag blowing in the wind.

My eyes were following the blue plastic bag that floated in between the onrushing cars. It curved sideways, rose and cruised and hung in the air, and finally ran into the path of a pedestrian who slapped it with the back of his hand and pushed it over the edge of the bridge. It limped over it and spiraled like a tiny tornado.

Because, when you think about those men & women entering the Twin Towers on 9/11, or boarding trains in London on 7/11, or riding a bus in Syria on a Sunday morning – they were all having normal, ordinary, even boring, days.  Until suddenly they weren’t.  Tanweer skillfully conveys the individual’s sense of normalcy leading up to a catastrophic event, which is so unfathomable to the reader who already possesses the knowledge of what is about to happen, and then allows the environment to degenerate into the chaos and confusion that must inevitably follow.

The Scatter Here is Too Great was on the shortlist for the DSC Prize.  It was not selected as the final winner by the Shadow or actual juries – mostly because despite its ambition (or perhaps because of it) the book has integral flaws.  The most obvious is how the voices of all the young men blend together as the book progresses. Less obvious, but ultimately more distracting, is how it works too hard at being a “concept” novel.  The opening image of the spiderweb crack is an intriguing one, particularly as the story centers on a bomb blast, and so you want it to fall into place naturally.  But Tanweer felt the need to insert (what I guess you could call) an element of metafiction: a writer who pops up to provide a sidebar commentary on what is happening and why. Tanweer doesn’t seem to fully trust his reader.  He’s created this writer to explain the structural and creative process… and to a point it succeeds. I was surprised at how well all the stories fit together and played their part in the author’s greater narrative plan.  But I didn’t see it until it was explained.  And, like that blue plastic bag, I forgot about it just as quickly.  One of the highest praises we as a society give to an artist is to say that he or she “makes it look easy”.  While The Scatter Here Is Too Great delivers moments of promise, in the end Tanweer succeeds in making it look unaccountably hard.

DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2015 Shadow Jury – And the winner is….

January 20, 2015 § Leave a comment

Title:  The Mirror of Beauty by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi

Author: Shamsur Rahman Faruqi

Translator:  Translated by the author from Urdu

Publisher:  Penguin, New York (2014)

ISBN:  978 0 143422 73 0

 

Publishers Description:  It is the sunset of the Mughal Empire. The splendour of imperial Delhi flares one last time. The young daughter of a craftsman in the city elopes with an officer of the East India Company. And so we are drawn into the story of Wazir Khanam: a dazzlingly beautiful and fiercely independent woman who takes a series of lovers, including a Navab and a Mughal prince—and whom history remembers as the mother of the famous poet Dagh. But it is not just one life that this novel sets out to capture: it paints in rapturous detail an entire civilization.


Of the five books shortlisted for the DSC Prize I only managed to read four.  The Mirror of Beauty, at 985 pages, was the one book I didn’t manage to get to. There just wasn’t enough time.

But when Stu, Lisa & I started discussing which book should win it quickly became a process of elimination. We all agreed one book was good, but not a prize winner. Another novel two of us did not like, one of us did. Noontide Toll by Romesh Gunesekera was a close runner up.

In the end both Stu’s & Lisa’s glowing recommendations of Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s beautiful, epic novel made it the only possible choice.

Click on the links below to their reviews to see why:

Stu’s review of The Mirror of Beauty at Winston’s Dad

Lisa’s review of The Mirror of Beauty at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

 

The official winner will be announced this Thursday, January 22nd.

 

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